I met Yeti yesterday, a young orphaned elephant who was caught in a snare two years ago. A young biologist from the Wildlife Conservation Society showed me her ankle where she’d been caught, still pink and scarred. But now Yeti’s fight is a parasite in her belly. She’s been very unwell with it and last week had no appetite at all, very sad for a young elephant who should be fat and strong. But yesterday, Yeti seemed full of energy. She’s eating again, lots of milk and supplements (which seem to be thick stems covered in some tasty nutty stuff), and hopefully she’ll be fully on the mend soon, though she still needs lots of help.
By the fire tower, above the bush with the paddle green leaves, and somewhere beyond the twin pale trunks, somewhere, in the dark brush, is a special bird.
“Pitta,” says Hari. “Pitta.”
He hurries to arrange his apparatus, a tripod and a strong telescope in a green cover, while he plays a recorded pitta call on his phone to try and tempt the bird forward, amplified with a bright blue speaker. When he stops the recording, he leans forward into the forest and cups his hands behind his ears. After a moment, the pitta responds with its own similar call, but faintly, as if he suspects it might be a trick. After repeating the process another three times, playing the recording, listening for the call, Hari has a good idea where the pitta bird is on the forest floor and aims the telescope.
“Just behind horizontal branch,” he says. “Pitta.”
When I look into the telescope I see only the horizontal branch, and not the pitta. Perhaps it’s camouflaged, or it only appears for Hari.
“I don’t see it,” I say, stepping gingerly away from the tripod.
“Here — head coming up and down,” says Hari and steps away again. I look and this time I wait. The bird calls again, and as he calls his orange juice head crowns over the horizontal branch with such a shock of colour that I think it’s lightning.
“Oh!” I say. The head disappears again beneath the branch. I try to peer around the rim of the telescope but the picture bends and becomes nonsense. I wait again, then the orange flash appears along with the call. This time the pitta keeps its head raised and I can see the where the bright orange crown fades to yellow, and then the sleek black mask over its black eyes.
When I look away from the telescope I don’t believe that the pitta bird is truly in the piece of forest in the front of us. For a start I can’t see it, or the horizontal branch, without the telescope and yet both are mere metres away. But also, in the telescope the bird is so perfect, its orange so jewel-like, its eyes so black, that it seems to have been caught there, preserved in glass.
[picture is not mine!]
I’ve been in Sumatra, Indonesia for ten days. The first four were a stormy, friendly, strange adventure. I met Annie, a birder from the UK who has traveled around the world in search of species with a sketchbook and “a short attention span,” and with the most positive and adventurous spirit I think I’ve ever met. I joined Annie on four outings. We did a night drive through the forest with a big spotlight and found deer, monkeys, and one very slow loris. We rode in a safari jeep with an open top under a cage. It was thrilling even if we hadn’t see anything. And of course I kept imagining tigers and wild pigs and dragons all making their homes in the dark. On another outing we went in a smoky boat up the Way Kanan river (or down perhaps… I think we were going towards the coast), and saw all the colourful life around the banks. Purple herons loping through the air. Tiny crimson sunbirds. Rumors of a crocodile from the warning calls of the mecaques.
More about those adventures later as I enjoy remembering the details…
On day five or so, I suddenly felt very unwell, with a fever and an awful headache. With four days of rest and rehydration, I think it’s nothing serious and I feel practically normal again, but it was a bit scary and stressful and gave a new perspective to my trip. You can’t always choose your own adventure.
On Being Sick in Sumatra
Symbols — I realize how I use symbols every day, how suspicions and markers help me keep time and rally myself. For the first five days of being here, I had pastel blue bed sheets with a lovely patterned throw on top. Under the first sheet, just when I was getting into bed there was a second sheet, a pretty rainbow-striped one. When I was ill, the sheets were changed to a sick-room blue stripe and white, without the flourishes. Today, after about four days of being ill, the rainbow-stripe sheet has returned and makes me feel happier just looking at it.
Kisses — Indonesian children blow kisses to white girls and the girl nextdoor blows plenty to me even though I look like I just came off a bad sea voyage.
Laughing — is good and can be created out of nothing — ie the Indonesian people laugh a lot, and they laugh when they’re nervous or surprised. Many people are offended at being laughed at, until they know, then they tend to laugh along. I think it’s great just to laugh, for no reason at all, or because you’re scared or embarrassed. It’s the only really common language I’ve found here and it works every time.
Reading — For the upteenth time in my life I’ve rediscovered the pleasure and power of reading. I feel like reading has saved me in unlikely situations; when I’m sad or lonely I can go into a book and everything outside — even if it takes some patience — drops away. Once when I was little a teacher told me that a particular book had saved his life at college, and I didn’t know what he meant but I absolutely do now.
While being here I’ve snuck in to the little library cabinet in the lodge office and have taken out a few books. One on birds of Indonesia, one adventure story about a boy who goes to live with African elephants, and one about a pair of twins trying to solve a row between their parents. All solid choices.
It also reminds me as a writer to look in unexpected places for wonderful writing. In the adventure story for example, some of the most precise metaphors and similes can be found — drawing two species of the animal kingdom together — like in describing a witch doctor stalking towards a panther, “He swayed like a lame heron as he walked.” I thought that was very good.
My family — self-explanatory :)
The first sound of the day is the 4.30am call to prayer. With the large hollow tone of the microphone the prayer leader sings out over the village, into the stuck-still air above my pillow.
The other early morning sounds follow in a circus, as if brought into existence by the prayer caller. The screech of a macaque, the two-tone calls of sun birds, the whine of a something I can’t name, the bray of something else. And then, among them, the wheeze of... an elephant? Oh yes, I think, an elephant. And then I gasp. Apparently the elephants here are notorious for stamping on crops in the night. The thumping drum that follows the elephant sound is a farmer trying to scare them away.
Then there are other, less simple sounds that are either human or animal or neither. I can tell how I’m feeling by how I hear them. A laugh so fierce it’s either a drunk woman or a mecaque in trouble. A juddering motorcycle answered by a juddering cockeral, or is it the other way round?
I’m feeling a little shy, so will try my best to add my own voice to the mix somehow too :).
Travelling between islands is very different from imagining travelling between islands. The land’s long, low and foggy. Flying over the sea is dim blue. When I arrive in Jakarta (which I realise I’ve been saying too leisurely, in three elongated syllables and should be said like someone cutting up a fruit with three quick strikes) the airport is a quiet corridor with wood carvings on the walls — then a bus ride to the other terminal, which is a modern glassy hangar. Food so far is stuffed rolls and cakes.
My next leg is to Bandar Lampung (Lampoong) and when I arrive at 6 I’m surprised to find it already dark.
The next few scenes are dreamlike — like set pieces spotlit and complete darkness in between. A conveyer belt with a crowd of people standing over it; a kind man with my name on a sign and a leopard print umbrella; a strip of one-story buildings with men standing around in groups of three or four, each with an umbrella and a friend with a car.
Then it’s a two-hour drive east of Lampung to the Satwa Elephant Ecolodge next to a national park called Way Kambas. The drive is unlikely — kind of peaceful and comforting — like being a child driven home in the dark. And also, because when we’re out of the city the land planes away, blue and unfussy, it reminds me of Norfolk. But as we pass through towns and villages, it’s very different and I can’t pretend I’m anywhere I know. Life is lived along the road, in open porches and around open kiosks, as the traffic streams past in a constant negotiation of overtaking. You’d think it never rains. Mosques are frequent and important. The houses are small with arched roofs and prominent doors. Their owners sit or lounge outside. Someone plays a drum. Someone sits on a motorcycle.
Then we’re back in the dark again. The road gets bumpier. “Nearly, nearly,” the driver says. And the next moment we’re heaving off the road into the walled compound of the lodge.
Today I took a trip to Haw Par Villa, which used to be Tiger Balm Gardens. The little jars of Tiger Balm my dad kept in his tennis bag were a mysterious sign of his past life in Singapore when I was a child, so I came to uncover the myth.
It's a quiet day, after a thundery night. Haw Par Villa is under construction, but the statues and dioramas are still visible for the few groups who've come by.
For Singaporeans, the Villa is a famous school trip spot and its bright and violent characters have been the villains of many a Singaporean bad dream.
Reading the ancient stories as I climb around owls and tigers, gentle monks and spear-wielding thieves, I try to collect some knowledge about these founding myths of Chinese culture, but the characters are so loud and strange that they jump in together and soon they're just one big pile of myth.
There's the Monkey God, a clever-looking blue-haired upstanding monkey who can travel many miles on a cloud. There's poor Pigsy, cursed because lust always gets the better of him. There's Madame White Snake and her brave son; Scarlet Child soaring in on wheels made of fire; and laughing at everybody is the Buddha, with a giant, rain-stained belly.
I may be not much more the wiser about my Chinese mythology, but the Haw Par Villa has a mythology all its own that I think I understand quite well!